Sailors on leave probably never did leap off ships eagerly, singing and dancing Leonard Bernstein songs, but that sure comes off as expressing the mood of the time in “On the Town,” the 1944 musical now being pleasantly revived by Reprise! at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. In contrast to these current days of doubt and division, this show plunges us into a past where the future looked grand enough to sing and dance about.
The war will soon be over. The country is united and optimistic. New York City is indeed a “helluva town,” with a sense of itself as the center of the dawning modern era. And the American musical theater is in the midst of its Golden Age, popular enough to draw in the likes of Bernstein, who delivered a brash, brassy and richly melodic score.
“On the Town” remains famous for its firsts: Bernstein’s first stage score, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s first book and lyrics, Jerome Robbins’ first Broadway choreography. In 1949, it would also become the first MGM film shot partly on location.
The film, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, has definitely overshadowed the stage show. It’s a shame, because the movie took a lot of liberties, including cutting several terrific songs. For a famous score, one that boasts the ever-hummable “New York, New York” among its gems, there’s a surprising amount to rediscover by going back to the original.
The Reprise! production, directed by Dan Mojica with musical direction by Gerald Sternbach, is impeccably sung by an enthusiastic cast. From the opening moments, as the three leading men Ozzy (David Brouwer), Chip (Jeffrey Schecter) and Gabey (David Elder) harmonize “New York, New York” in between leaps and twirls, we know we’re in capable hands, especially vocally.
It only gets better as the leading ladies arrive, each of whom can hoof as well as sing.
The show is stingy on story, which involves little more than the adventures of three small-town boys in New York for only 24 hours, seeking dates and pairing up with a trio of modern gals.
Bets Malone, delivers just the right sassiness for Hildy Esterhazy, a taxi driver who describes herself as free, young and “highly attainable.” Her numbers with the likable Schecter -- “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too” -- swell with the cheeky confidence of a woman who’s not afraid to lead.
Tami Tappan Damiano provides nicely restrained zaniness as Claire de Loone, an anthropologist who is engaged but can’t keep her hands off Ozzy, which leads to the energetic duet, “Carried Away.”
Finally, there’s Ivy Smith (Kate Levering), an aspiring actress who has just been named the monthly subway poster-girl, “Miss Turnstiles.” Gabey, whose war-hero earnestness is well-captured by Elder, spends the day finding, losing and finding her again, and his intermittent reveries provide the opportunity for balletic dream sequences.
At first, Lee Martino’s choreography comes off as too whirly and predictable, but it gets more muscular and creative as the show goes on. Nothing inspiring, but satisfying -- certainly more than expected given the scaled-down nature of Reprise! productions. The set doesn’t fair so well, though: Other than some creative design work for the subway and taxi scenes, it consists of projections and three cartoonish and unattractive cardboard buildings in the background.
Though the production is unimaginative, it is effective. And it’s ultimately best at the periphery. Star turns here come from Harriet Harris as Ivy’s ever-soused singing teacher, and Larry Cedar as Claire’s overly understanding fiance.
The ultimate star turn, though, is Bernstein’s music.
‘On the Town’
Where: UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays,
2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 2
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes